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Oh, Sonic. What's happened to you? It's no small secret that Sega's once-dominant mascot has slipped over the years, with awful games making things worse by the month. But worldwide love is still strong, and each time there's a new platformer announced we shuffle in line like a bunch of nice devoted fanboys and pray, deep down, that this will be the Sonic game that doesn't suck. And we're let down every time.
How did it come to this?
That's what we're here to discuss. From the successful beginning to the most recent "Wolf Sonic" shocker, we'll chronicle Sonic's descent from superstar to punchline.
If you weren't around for Sonic's arrival, you missed out on his best moments. Sega needed a mascot that could rival Nintendo's unchallenged Mario, and in 1991 that's precisely what it created. Sonic's carefully designed attitude, penchant for speed and "I've got things to do" demeanor made Mario look like, well, a slow, tubby plumber. Sonic was cool and Mario wasn't, a "truth" that made bitter rivals out of gamers everywhere.
This cultural takeover happened so fast you'd swear Sonic himself orchestrated the whole thing. Cartoons, collectibles, comic books, even a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, making him the very first gaming icon to appear in one of America's best known celebrations. There's also evidence to suggest that in the early to mid 1990s, Sonic was more well-known to kids than Mickey Mouse. He went from idea to worldwide icon faster than Mario - just one of the many things Sega claimed Nintendidn't do at the time. As a result, Sega was on top of the world, gleefully stealing Nintendo's iron-fisted market share day by day, playground by playground.
After three highly successful entries on the Genesis/Mega Drive, Sonic's renown was at its peak. Each game was a joy, letting you tear ass through all kinds of colorful stages faster than any other game at the time, yet maintained a sense of order; even though Sonic's going nuts, you still felt in control, that you were the one making him do all these amazing things. Running through corkscrews, giant loops and infinitely long half pipes were experiences exclusive to Sonic, and Sonic only gamed for Sega. He wasn't just a franchise anymore, he was the company.
As the early '90s wore on, Sonic starred in the flagship Sega CD title, Sonic CD, one of GR's favorite games in the series. Then Sonic & Knuckles landed in 1994 with "lock on" tech that let you snap Sonic 2 and 3 into the top of the cart, unlocking Knuckles as a playable character in the older games. There were two cartoons airing during this time too; neither was very good. The first was embarrassingly juvenile and the other took itself too seriously. For our money, the best piece of Sonic animation came from the aforementioned Sonic CD:
Above: The Sega CD version was grainy and small, but this GameCube remake restored the ending to its full screen, hyperactive glory
Fun as they were, Sonic CD and Knuckles were essentially more of the same. The formula, while immensely successful and the basis for countless 16-bit imitators, wasn't going to keep Sonic ahead of the pack forever. Early experiments like 3D Blast were hardly runaway hits.
With what appeared to be a blank slate for the property, Sonic developers went wild with new ideas. And what came out was derivative, unwanted nonsense.